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When baby talk takes a political turn

When an exhausted mother wrote on a Web forum last year that she planned to put her disabled daughter into foster care because local officials had declined her plea for support, British Prime Minister David Cameron voiced his concern the next day at a news conference.

When mothers on the same site demanded that retailers place raunchy “lads’ mags” out of children’s view, big supermarket chains quickly announced plans to do so.

Such is the power of Mumsnet, a parenting site that has leveraged its sizable online presence into a voice loud enough to be heard on the national stage —  and in the offices of Britain’s political leaders.

The British news media dubbed the 2010 parliamentary elections, the first of the social media era, “the Mumsnet election.” Both Cameron and Gordon Brown, who was prime minister at the time, sat down for Web chats with the site’s users, fielding questions on subjects as varied as taxes, bankers’ bonuses, breast-feeding and nursery schools.

Mumsnet is an eclectic combination of the mundane, the intimate and the moneymaking, of the kind that only exists online. Users chat about potty training and the tooth fairy, bond over serious problems like depression and divorce, and make noise about big social issues like rape. Reviews of products like strollers and Q & A’s about vacuum cleaners and washing machines bring in revenue.

It is a mix that seems to attract the powerful and give the site — founded by two British professional women who are mothers, back in 2000 — a voice that is heeded more than that of similar sites in other countries.

The site did not start out seeking political clout, said Justine Roberts, Mumsnet’s co-founder and chief executive.

She and Carrie Longton, friends from a prenatal class, introduced the site just as the dot-com bubble was bursting. After a disastrous vacation with young twins, Roberts thought there would be an audience for a site that gave parents a way to share child-rearing experiences and advice, she said.

Mumsnet said it now has more than 5.7 million visits a month, including 2.7 million unique users. Revenues come from traditional advertising, as well as charging companies for access to users who give feedback about products or spread word of them.

Roberts said Mumsnet members, who join by registering on the site, had veto power over all its big decisions.

Users also drive the issue campaigns. The rape awareness effort “We Believe You” began with a post asking how many Mumsnet members had been raped or sexually assaulted. Shocked by the outpouring of emotional posts, the site conducted its own poll, and members soon began blogging and posting on Twitter about the issue.

Roberts said the site uses its voice carefully. Mumsnet makes no political endorsements and only campaigns on issues that have near unanimous support on its chat boards.

“The power is in the democracy of it,” she said. “We didn’t set out to change the world, but once we had politicians knocking on our door, wanting to speak to our audience, it seemed remiss not to try.”

Mumsnet’s influence has come from its combination of size and savvy, said Christine Cheng, who lectures on women in politics at King’s College London.

“You have to have the critical mass, and you have to choose to use it in a political way,” she said, noting that most parenting sites do not jump into public debates. Mumsnet, she said, gives people a way to be heard in their role as parents.

Although parenting websites abound globally, there are few in other Western countries that match Mumsnet’s market dominance and political clout.

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